Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni and his players kept repeating a certain phrase like a mantra. "If we play our style of football, we can win," the Italian coach and Samurai Blue players said before and during the World Cup. The phrase proved to be too optimistic however, as Japan was eliminated from the tournament at the group stage, earning a mere one point from three games.
Under the Italian coach, Japan adopted a playing style of breaking the opponent's defence through quick, short passes involving a number of players involved in passing the ball. The team relied on combination play because the Japanese lacked the individual skills to go head-to-head with opponents' world-class players.
"Japan doesn't have [England's Wayne] Rooney nor [Netherlands' Robin] van Persie. It's impossible for Japan to produce such players in such a short time," Japan forward Shinji Kagawa said, citing his Manchester United teammates.
The organizational power the Japanese players cultivated enabled them to compete well even with football powerhouses-but only in friendly matches. When it came to the World Cup, they could not show "Japan's style of play" that Zaccheroni and his players had honed over the previous four years.
Were the Japan players overawed? No. Japan exited the World Cup early on because of their lack of gamesmanship and immature game-managing skills, which are needed to seize the upper hand in top-level competitions.
Japan's opening loss to Cote d'Ivoire was symbolic, and eventually fatal for the Samurai Blue's efforts to advance to the knockout stage. Japan struggled to cope with the African team from the start, which aggressively kept up the pressure.
Japan scored the opening goal, but it was Cote d'Ivoire that took the initiative. The Samurai Blue did almost nothing to change the tide of the game-they could have passed behind Cote d'Ivoire's defence line or tenaciously exchanged passes among defenders to confuse the Elephants. The Japanese players were too gentlemanly in their tackling. A bit more enthusiasm in this respect could have dampened Cote d'Ivoire's ardour.
Half of the 23-man Japan squad are players based in Europe, including Yuto Nagatomo, who has become a key player for Italy's prestigious Inter Milan. By constantly competing with the world's top players, they have surpassed previous national players both in quality and quantity. But that was still not enough.
"An increasing number of [Japanese] players are making their presence known in Europe. The national team's level of play has improved steadily," said Japan defender Maya Yoshida, who plays for England's Southampton. "But Japanese players-including me-still haven't been able to deliver in a top competition."
"Over the past four years, we couldn't recover once we lost momentum during a game. We have various issues to address, such as the ability to grasp the tide of the game," Kagawa said.
Europe is not convenient for Japanese teams to visit. Many Asian rivals are not competitive enough. Therefore, it is not easy for Japan to gain the experience needed to compete at a world-class level. Japan has been invited to next year's Copa America, which would be perfect for the country to join-but it's not a realistic option, given the J.League's packed schedule.
Meanwhile, the number of young players seeking careers in Europe has climbed in the past four years after the previous World Cup, as the "Japan brand" of players had risen. Those who returned from Europe brought their experience to J.League clubs and have helped boost Japan's football level.
General Secretary of the Japan Football Association Hiromi Hara said, "The direction of the national team shouldn't be changed based only on results." Japan should not give up its attacking style merely because of one setback. As it progresses toward the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, the Samurai Blue must strive to gain experience and improve the quality of play to shine in the sport's most prestigious event.